Spanning the Missouri: Nebraska’s Pontoon Bridges

Pontoon bridge at Plattsmouth. NSHS RG3384-10-71

Nebraska City’s pontoon bridge spanning the Missouri River was opened with much fanfare in August of 1888. Constructed by S. N. Stewart of Philadelphia as a toll bridge, it claimed to be the first such bridge across the Missouri River and the largest drawbridge of its kind in the world. The pontoon section crossing the main channel was 1,074 feet long, with a l,050-foot cribwork approach spanning a secondary channel between an island and the Iowa shore. The roadway, including two pedestrian footways, was 24.5 feet wide. Opening the “draw” (the V-shaped portion that could swing open for boats or flowing ice) provided a 528-foot-wide passage.

Another pontoon bridge spanning the Missouri was built in 1889, linking Covington in Dakota County with Sioux City, Iowa. The Omaha Bee said on April 23: “Work on the new pontoon bridge at Covington is progressing rapidly. Already sixty-five of the 200 pontoons are completed, and a gang of five men are at work on the remaining ones, which are expected to be completed in about six weeks.” The pontoon bridge there yielded a daily income of around $100, with a toll of five cents each way. The bridge operated from 1889 until 1896, when a new bridge opened for business.

A wagon and team crossing the Missouri River on the Covington pontoon bridge (left) in 1896. NSHS RG3170-15

In 1890 a pontoon bridge was installed over the Missouri linking Yankton, South Dakota, with rural Cedar County, Nebraska. To protect against ice damage, the pontoon structure was disassembled each year before the winter freeze. Efforts to build a more permanent bridge began in 1915, but lapsed with the country’s entrance into World War I. The Meridian Highway Bridge was finally completed in 1924.

Plattsmouth celebrated Labor Day in 1902 by opening its new pontoon bridge across the Missouri at that point. Built at a cost of ten thousand dollars by the city’s businessmen, it lasted only until the summer of 1903, when the boats forming the bridge broke loose and were carried down the river.

More information on Nebraska’s bridges is available in Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, edited by James E. Potter and L. Robert Puschendorf, and published in 1999 by the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Department of Roads. This well-illustrated book reviews the history of bridge building from early temporary spans to contemporary highway bridges. Look for it at your local library or obtain it through interlibrary loan. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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